Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
UEA President Pat Rusk shows off her "countdown chain" in Salt Lake City.

Utah Education Association boss Pat Rusk, with her signature rhetoric about a starved public school system she says deserves more money, not an overhaul, has some Capitol Hill enemies.

But the leader of the 18,000-member union also has friends, handing over dollars and manpower to one of Utah's strongest political arsenals that has helped block Republican Party-backed tax credits or vouchers for private school tuition in one of the nation's reddest states.

But Rusk is tired of political pugilism.

Her two terms as UEA president are over.

She's returning to a fourth-grade classroom at Willow Canyon Elementary, tucked in Jordan School District suburbia. Her paper "countdown chain," from which she has torn a link each day for months, disappears today. The last link's message: "Now, hit the road, Jack!"

She looks forward to it.

"I've been too many places where people didn't like me. I want to go somewhere I'm liked . . . (and) have the UEA tattoo off my forehead," she said. It's as if "I've lived abroad . . . now I'm coming home."

Rusk started her career 25 years ago, teaching elementary grades mostly in Jordan District. The new grandmother loves to laugh, be around children and "collect people." She has a rocking chair in her house where neighborhood kids ask to sit with her, have a good cry and rock until they laugh.

Rusk, who sits on the KUED 7 Friends Board, the executive committee of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch and the Governor's Commission on Literacy, mentors colleagues and students — sometimes, for life. Former students send her Christmas cards and photos of their own children.

"She's a fabulous teacher, one of the best," said Sean Mabey, Granite Education Association associate director and Rusk's former intern. "It sounds cliche, but it's almost magical when she's in a classroom, what she's able to do."

She also is known to adopt strangers. UEA executive director Susan Kuziak tells of a time Rusk and her husband, Rich, were returning from a Wendover trip. They spotted a stranded young family on the roadside. The Rusks pulled over, loaded them up and brought them home, where they stayed for a week.

"If anyone needs help, her sense of what's the right thing to do is so keen," Kuziak said. " 'Oh, here, come live with us for a week, and we'll get you a doctor, and your dog, and come back out to get your car.' That's who Pat is.

"She's fun, you know?"

Yet many people don't know that Pat Rusk. They see the hard-line, "no excuses" Pat Rusk, the union figurehead. They see the fierce fighter in the perennial tuition tax credits battle, where the UEA goes head-to-head with Parents for Choice in Education.

"We wish Pat Rusk well as she moves on to the next stage of her career," said Elisa Peterson, Parents for Choice executive director. "The reality is the school choice movement is going forward. Momentum has been building in the last few years" with booming charter school enrollment and private school vouchers for students with disabilities. "The UEA under Pat's leadership has had a lot of influence, but we've also seen that influence wane as more and more families (want choice)."

But the momentum has yet to move the Utah House, where moderate Republicans since 2000 have held the line on tuition tax credit legislation, allowing only one failed floor vote on the matter.

"The UEA — I would say, they have a pretty tight grip on that issue," said House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, adding he has enjoyed working with the union boss. "They support certain Republicans, and they use this as a litmus test, which is kind of unfortunate: If you indicate willingness to support or consider a tax credit or voucher . . . they won't support or endorse your candidacy."

The UEA's political action committee is one of Utah's strongest, though the state's Voluntary Contributions Act — a law banning government employees' payroll deductions for PACs that's still tied up in the courts — took its balance from more than $600,000 to just under $300,000 in three years.

"(She) speaks softly and carries a big stick," House Minority Assistant Whip Patricia Jones, D-Cottonwood Heights, said in a video tribute to Rusk created by the UEA. "She's very effective. She can do things in a way that she can get things done, but it's in a way that does not turn people off."

The UEA also has worked to involve teachers in mass meetings. The idea is they could become the delegates who nominate candidates, essentially affecting elections before the ballot's even printed.

Despite this political activity, Rusk says she doesn't particularly like going to the Hill for the legislative session. "I think it's important; I don't think it's where we do our best work."

Rusk prefers the UEA road trips, where union leaders travel across Utah to hear teachers' concerns and needs. She also notes her presentations at town meetings, school boards and any other venue she can get to tell people Utah's effort to pay for public schools is slipping.

"I've always said if anyone, especially any of our educators, could follow her around for a day . . . they would be devoted to public education forever and ever," said Kimilee Campbell, the new UEA president. "I can't imagine anyone I'd rather follow."

Now, Rusk looks forward to the next challenge: 9- and 10-year-olds.

"She got a class list so she could learn names of students," Kuziak said. "I think her face is going to break (from smiling) if she doesn't cut it out."

Friends and admirers say her legacy will be the road trip, solid leadership and work ethic, community outreach, her "invest in public education" push, her love for children and the teaching profession.

But Rusk says she hopes to be remembered otherwise:

"As a hard act to follow."